The race is on for the commercialization of Autonomous (driverless) Vehicles (AV’s) – Google hopes to get there by 2020. You have probably noticed the almost daily news stories and television segments about AV technology. The reality is that the technology is here (subject only to being fine-tuned), but the regulatory scheme is causing some delays. In other words, our existing automobile laws are becoming more outdated day by day as AV technology continues to advance. Many argue that current state laws related to the testing and rollout of AV’s are doing nothing but stifling the technology.
While the “non-traditional” auto manufacturers (Google, Apple, Uber, Tesla) raced to a quick lead in the public’s eye on AV technology, the major auto manufacturers quickly ramped up their AV development to keep the pace. Now, GM, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Volvo, BMW, etc., are all in the race to see who can bring AV’s to the commercial market first, which has resulted in a series of mergers, acquisitions and partnerships between the auto manufacturers and a variety of start-ups, software companies and product suppliers. For example, GM recently invested $500 million in ride- share company Lyft, and then invested $1 billion to purchase Cruise Automation, a self- driving vehicle startup. Google recently announced the construction of a facility in Michigan to test its AV technology and Toyota recently announced a $1 billion investment in its AV program. Uber has aggressively hired the best and brightest minds in the engineering field to focus on AV technology. As a group, several of the companies recently banded together to form the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying group, to ensure that AV’s hit the market sooner than later. The Coalition is promoting one clear set of federal laws, which they intend to help develop, as the best way to evolve the technology.
With the support of the federal government – President Obama carved out $4 billion in the 2017 budget for AV development, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is bullishly advocating for AV’s – the manufacturers and the states have the support to move the AV technology, testing and development along at a brisk pace. In order to get around the patchwork of various state laws that are already developing, the Department of Transportation and NHTSA have been working on proposed operational guidelines for AV testing and regulation, and a “model” policy for the states to help end the mishmash of local regulations that threaten to stymie the development of AV’s. The new guidelines are expected to identify which aspects of AV regulation will be uniform and which will be left to the states’ discretion.
On the state level, in an effort to make Virginia a leader in researching and developing AV technology and to streamline the use of Virginia’s roadways and state-of-the-art test facilities for AV testing and certification, the state announced on June 2, 2015 the creation of the Virginia Automated Corridors partnership. This initiative was created to help build a new economy, and to provide the opportunity for AV manufacturers and suppliers to experience ideal, real-world environments that they need to test complex driving scenarios. The program integrates numerous resources, such as 70 miles of interstate highway, dedicated high-occupancy toll lanes, high definition mapping capabilities, enhanced pavement markings and connected vehicle capability via dedicated short range communications.
Similarly, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order on Aug. 25, 2015 to encourage AV development and testing. Michigan lawmakers recently proposed legislation to allow for the expanded manufacture and road testing of AV’s, in an effort to protect Michigan’s dominance in the automotive research and development arena, before other states (and countries) beat them to the task. California and Nevada, among others, have already passed legislation to promote and encourage AV development and allow AV testing on public roads. In fact, about six states have passed AV legislation, while 16 other states introduced AV legislation in 2015. Much of the debate among state legislatures involves whether to require a human driver behind the wheel who can take over or whether the definition of “driver” can actually include the AV’s computer system, which acts to control the vehicle.
Why all the fuss?
Safety. There are about 36,000 deaths in the U.S. each year due to automobile accidents. And, more than 90 percent of those accidents are caused by human error. Estimates show that AV technology could reduce traffic deaths by 80 percent. So the obvious problem is the human driver. Humans get tired, sleepy, and distracted, they text, they look at Facebook … and they drink. In fact, one theory is that our children and grandchildren will look back one day with horror and disbelief as they consider the number of deaths and accidents during the first 100 years of the automobile when we actually drove them ourselves! On the other hand, the recent, highly publicized, Tesla accident in Florida, believed to be the first fatality involving a vehicle in autonomous mode, has been a wake-up call to the industry. But, statistically, Tesla points out that its Autopilot mode, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, reduces driver fatigue and is still safer than purely manual driving. Tesla also notes that its system is still in the beta testing phase and provides warnings that the drivers remain engaged and ready to take the wheel.
Other benefits expected to come about as a result of AV’s include reduced traffic congestion, offsite parking, fewer cars on the road and less individual car ownership, as society moves to a ride-sharing mentality. Who wants the cost, maintenance and insurance expenses and other hassles of car ownership, when the vehicle sits in the garage depreciating 90 percent of the time? Studies show that the members of our younger generation do not want to be bothered by driving anyway … they much prefer the freedom to text and use social media. And, AV’s will give new freedom to the elderly and people with disabilities.
How will it work?
The AV’s are loaded with radar, light-based radar, cameras, sensors, software, maps and computers with 360-degree awareness that can see around corners, over hills and otherwise anticipate things that humans cannot, and can react faster. And, they will be connected to each other by Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) technology, and to the world around them by Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) technology, via dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) links to a wireless spectrum band similar to Wi-Fi. The merger of these technologies will allow the AV to become part of an integrated transportation ecosystem.
One of the biggest debates among the manufacturers is the issue of how much autonomy the car needs to have and whether to pursue “Semi-Autonomy” (human driver required to take over in emergency, i.e., GM) or “Full Autonomy” (no steering wheel, no brake pedals, i.e., Google). Google argues that Semi-Autonomy is actually more dangerous, because the whole point is to get the humans from behind the wheel, because humans cannot be relied upon to act quickly enough in emergency situations.
In addition to safety, there are a plethora of other thorny practical, legal and regulatory issues to navigate before we see the mass commercialization of AV’s, such as licensing, registration, certification, insurance, infrastructure, liability, cyber-security, privacy and ethical dilemmas – such as where the AV must decide between two bad outcomes in an unavoidable accident scenario. But, at the current pace of AV technology, expect to see these issues resolved sooner than later.